Uzodinma Iweala’s novel Beasts of no Nation is a brutal story about a boy who is forced to become a soldier. I read it in an hour and it has real impact. It’s written in the present continuous tense, which gives it a sense of immediacy and the voice of the character is omnipresent, youthful and naive,. His language is idiosyncratic and optimistic, despite being faced with a horrific and life-changing experience.
Agu, the narrator, is a bright boy and a promising scholar with an ambition to become a ‘big man,’ a doctor or an engineer; then civil war breaks out and his family is dissipated and he is taken to become a soldier.We are never told in which country the story takes place: the fact that it is in an unnamed part of West Africa hints at the ubiquitous prevalence of child soldiers.
The author Uzodinma Iweala is a Harvard graduate who has worked with the rehabilitation of Nigerian child soldiers, and his story is expertly written from the boy’s viewpoint, a simple story which focuses on each moment Agu experiences, using language which graphically but simply describes incidents, emotions and reactions.
At times there is an almost comic- book style to Agu’s speech, emphasising his lost childhood, in phrases like ‘War is coming and you are seeing airplane and hearing GBWEM GBWEM’ and ‘I am liking sound of knife chopping KPWUDA KPWUDA on her head.’
The novel bursts with realistic characters: the tragic Strika who first finds Agu and becomes his friend; the ‘Leftenant’ who comes to a bad end in a brothel, the wild Rambo and the callous Commandant who abuses Agu and terrifies him.
‘Agu, I am not bad man, he is saying softly and putting hand on my back.’
Agu is offered the simple choice of death or life as a soldier: he joins the rebel troops and he is given a knife. We are with him as he marches, as he is given ‘gun juice’ which takes away the terror of killing. We experience his wretchedness, his efforts to survive, his omnipresent fear, loneliness, hunger and the contrasting pride and degradation of being a guerilla soldier.Throughout, Agu provides us with his own philosophy as he is forced to murder, rape and question his own humanity, and we see the pointless repetition of sacrifice, starvation and slaughter through his eyes.
Using flashbacks, Agu contrasts his life as a soldier with the happiness of his former life, remembering his hopes for a future to become a man of importance, and recalling the tragic loss of his natural lifestyle where feasting and warrior dancing was a part of his family experience. He tells of how he often played with makeshift guns with friends, a sharply ironic image against his premature coming of age as a soldier.
The story ends with Agu and the rest of his dishevelled soldier band walking home. Agu is found by missionaries where he is supported towards recovery, and helped to become physically stronger. He is encouraged to talk about his feelings and his experiences as a soldier but he is a changed boy, still ambitious to become a respected professional and to regain self esteem but he is damaged, haunted by nightmare scenes of war, and he is changed, with a bitter lack of faith in the Bible which had once been his comfort.
Last year, a feature film adaptation of Beasts of no Nation was released, starring Abraham Attah and Idris Elba.The book is a story of survival and hope but,.mostly, it is a horror story of fractured childhood and a travesty of human rights. It screams out to be read.